3 Ways to Turn Data Into Stories

June 27, 2018

As counterintuitive as it may sound, when dealing with data, one of the most important things to remember is that numbers alone don’t tell stories — but people can tell stories using numbers.

Sure, sometimes a trend line moving up or down is so revelatory that a narrative practically writes itself. And occasionally, you might stumble across an unexpected bit of data that flashes at you like a bright neon sign saying, “You can stop looking now. I’m right here.” But rarely is data so attention-grabbing.

It doesn’t take a special skill to spot outliers in a set of numbers; just throw some conditional formatting into Microsoft Excel, and the figures that stand out on either end of the spectrum will be automatically highlighted in red or green. Although, in the world of insights, that automatic attention is not where the work ends, but where it begins.

Pulling real, human insights out of data — intelligence that leads to powerful, memorable stories and communications campaigns — requires more than just plugging numbers into software. We must decide which data to prioritize and which to ignore, and then decipher how and why certain dots connect. And then we have to use all of that research to tell a story about our product or service.

How do we go from combing through rows and columns of data to crafting an impactful brand story? Here are three principles of data storytelling that have helped me:

1. Go in looking for something.

In a world of budgets, deadlines, fatigue and the need for sleep, it’s impossible to analyze everything in the data universe. We have to make careful choices about where we focus our attention.

At the same time, it’s also crucial to analyze data dispassionately and with an open mind. We must follow the numbers where they lead us and draw meaning from them, rather than imposing our own biases, agendas or preconceived notions on the numbers. But that doesn’t mean we should go in blindly.

It helps to develop a hypothesis beforehand, which we can then confirm or refute once the data arrives. Having a reference point gives us direction as we sail through the sea of numbers. If what we expected turns out to be wrong, that realization may be an insight, and a story, in itself.

2. Use a framework.

Insights rarely emerge from a single point of data. Instead, they’re usually found at the conflux of various data streams: A recent cultural trend merges with a deeply held consumer belief, for example, swirling together at a certain societal moment in time to reveal a powerful story.

Figuring out how the various data streams are related, and what their relationships mean, is the real meat of generating insights and telling stories from data. Using a framework — even one as simple as the 3 C’s of customer/consumer, competition and company/clients — can help guide your analysis.

  • Customer/Consumer: What are the customer or consumer’s tangible and emotive motivations in relation to the product or service?
  • Competition: What is the competition doing well, and not so well, that creates an unrealized opportunity for your client?
  • Company/Client: What do we know about the client or company that can be credibly owned, based on the customer/consumer’s need and the unrealized opportunity that exists or could exist?

3. Step back.

In the hit 1986 movie "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," the lead character and his friends skip school and spend part of their afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, admiring various paintings and sculptures. At the end of the scene, Ferris’ best friend Cameron becomes entranced by one particular painting: Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”

Seurat was famous for his use of pointillism, a method in which artists paint a canvas with small dots of color to form an image that can only be discerned from a distance. Staring closely at the individual dots, as Cameron does in the scene, makes them seem blurry and unconnected. But taking a few steps back shifts the viewer’s perspective, revealing the beautiful shapes, colors and patterns the artist meant to convey.

Data analysis is similar to pointillism in that sense. When you find yourself focusing too much on the minutiae of data, take a few steps back.

I like to physically print all my research slides and spread them out. I put the slides on a table or wall, rearrange them, group them, draw lines and arrows between them, and see how they might fit together into a compelling story. You might be amazed by how much it helps to look at data not as individual dots, but as components of a larger, beautiful picture.

Jason Woodward

Jason Woodward is a senior strategic planner at Ketchum Global Research & Analytics and has helped develop strategies for clients across the agency. He has worked on consumer products, health-care companies, financial institutions, nonprofits and brands in a variety of industries.


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